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The True Roots of Mass Violence

It is naïve to dismiss mass killings as merely the actions of the mentally afflicted or the racist

Perhaps you have caught yourself nodding along with a commencement speaker holding forth about “progress.” Did the occasion cause you stop and wonder, after so many commencement speakers have launched so many generations of “bright young graduates” to go forth and make the world a better place, why it so obviously is not? We have all been seduced to one degree or another by what in the end is a denial of original sin. When we speak of evil today we more likely mean some not-so-clearly defined failure on the part of men to organize human society properly.

Since the seventeenth century, influential philosophers have peddled the false idea that man is perfectible. Once we pass the right laws, create the right economic markets, construct the right social systems, and launch the right technologies, we will eradicate human suffering. No amount of evidence as to the folly of this view will dissuade its proponents. Even the most horrifying manifestations—Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Stalin’s Great Purge, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Sanger’s eugenics movement—seem not to inspire an honest reexamination of the idea itself.

A good bit of the political rhetoric that followed the El Paso and Dayton massacres argued that we can arrest or reverse immoral behavior with legislative, therapeutic, or technological solutions. We have heard calls for more federal money to address mental illness, more legal restrictions on the ownership of firearms, and better software for sifting through billions and billions of social media posts. Some of these measures may well prevent some future brutality, but their effect will be marginal.

I propose something more fundamental: Christians who feel a sense of helplessness or even despair after each mass shooting should start being honest about evil, with themselves and with those that God puts in their lives. If you are reluctant to talk about evil and need a pep talk, I recommend the stirring final chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Let’s set aside talk of the culture war and talk instead about spiritual combat. Paul’s meaning is clear: evil is personal. There are demons at work in the world, and these demons are persons—not just vague forces or bad feelings. If you have ever been tempted by the deliberate efforts of another human person, you can at least have a guess at how vastly more skilled demons are. They need not bother with your senses. They can go straight to your imagination.

For very good reason the Church exhorts us to make it a fair fight by seeking the help of St. Michael and his angels to defend us in spiritual combat. For very good reason the Church warns us to avoid the occult. I discourage you from looking at all into the obsessions of the Dayton killer, but his enthusiasm for the demonic cannot be separated from the evil acts he committed. Was he possessed by a demon? The Church is careful not to make such determinations without close examination and cannot do so in this case. But it would be naïve to dismiss the massacres that are now so much a part of our news cycle as merely the actions of racists or the mentally afflicted.

Closer to the truth, of course, is the causal relationship between the disintegration of marriage and family and the abundant social pathologies that afflict the children of broken homes. My friends Allan Carlson and Jennifer Roback Morse, and many other historians of the family, have amassed data enough to choke an elephant showing that social chaos fills the vacuum left by the retreat from marriage. If the government wanted to promote the one institution whose failure leads more than any other to the violence plaguing our country, it would encourage marriage and the traditional family. An easy way to do this would be tax incentives that favor intact families with children.

Catholics who want to do something about mass shootings should live fully and publicly the teachings of the Church concerning the sacrament of matrimony. Here are two: don’t divorce and stop contracepting. That sounds glib, I know, but matrimony is a sacrament, so with it comes all the graces needed to live it to the fullest.

Such divine grace, in fact, is the ultimate remedy to evil. If you want to do something about mass shootings, avail yourself with abandon of the many means of grace the Church has given us. I recommend sacramentals like scapulars, miraculous medals, and holy water, and devotions like consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  Above all, avail yourselves regularly of those means of grace instituted by Our Lord himself: daily Communion and frequent confession.

We are in what was once called, in the liturgical calendar, the Octave of the Assumption. This is a good time to reflect on the unity of the natural and supernatural world, so beautifully manifested in Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, body and soul. She is, of course, the demon-fighter par excellence. Calling on her holy name to protect us from demons is a better plan than pretending they don’t exist, which will only provoke them to manifest with a vengeance. And calling on her holy name also imitates Our Lord, whom the Father saw fit to entrust to her maternal protection.

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